Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, whose “Fun Home” — about growing up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father, among many other subjects — won a fistful of Tony Awards. Now it’s coming to the 5th Avenue Theatre.
Over the past week, when asking friends and newsroom colleagues if they’ve heard of Alison Bechdel, they’ve tended to furrow their brows and look upward and to the right, as if I’d asked them to solve a math problem on the fly.
The follow-up question: whether they’ve heard of the “Bechdel test” — about gender politics in film. Then they tended to unfurrow their brows, point a finger in the air and say: “Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of that!” For those who’ve never heard of it: A movie passes the three-part test when it (1) has more than two female characters (2) who talk to each other (3) about something besides a man.
“The test” first appeared in a 1985 strip of Bechdel’s syndicated comic “Dykes to Watch Out For.” (One character explains the rule to the other as they walk past action-movie posters and concludes: “Last movie I was able to see was ‘Alien.’ The two women in it talk to each other about the monster.”)
July 11-30, 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 5th Ave., Seattle; $36-$141 (206-625-1900 or 5thavenue.org).
Bechdel was born into a Catholic family in Pennsylvania, moved to Manhattan and was rejected from several art schools, but she launched her career when newspapers (including The Stranger in Seattle) started running “Dykes” in the early ’90s.
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She paused her work on “Dykes” to write full-length graphic novels, including “Fun Home,” about growing up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. (He was killed by a truck — Bechdel has said she suspects it was suicide.) Bechdel won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and “Fun Home” became a musical that eventually went to Broadway, adapted by playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori.
The musical version of “Fun Home” won a satchel of awards (including five Tonys), and it is now coming to Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre after dates in Cleveland and Manila.
Bechdel talked with The Seattle Times about subjects ranging from “the test” to Virginia Woolf to accusations that Mayor Ed Murray solicited sex from men below the age of consent — a subject addressed in memories of her father in “Fun Home.” (Some of the conversation has been edited for length.)
Q: Are you coming to Seattle to see the show?
A: Ha! No. It would be more than a full-time job to follow the production around.
Q: How much of a hand did you have on the tiller for steering “Fun Home” from your graphic novel to the stage?
A: The musical form is so alien to me. The agreement was: “You can pay me to make a musical and we’ll see what happens.” But Lisa (playwright Lisa Kron, who co-adapted “Fun Home”) talked to me a lot about the genesis of this project, why the book was so hard.
Q: Why was writing “Fun Home” so hard?
A: It took me about seven years. The book was almost a mourning ritual for my father, a funeral, and I was thinking that when I finished it, I would be finished with my father in some way. I didn’t want that to end.
Q: So what happened when you finished the book?
A: It was like downloading something off my hard drive that had been using up so much of my RAM — that’s a horrible analogy. But that’s how it felt.
Q: The sections about your father having sexual experiences with men below the age of consent are going to hit Seattle audiences differently than it hits people in other towns — you might have heard about the accusations against our mayor, Ed Murray, about soliciting sex from men under the age of consent, which he has denied.
A: I have heard about that, and I don’t know much about the details. But writing about my dad, part of me was very judgmental: “How could he do this to these boys?” but I had to think about his context. Gay men my age talking about their first sexual experiences — they’re often with older men. It was a different time and place, and who am I to put a framework on that? There’s a rich tradition of gay men coming into their sexuality with older men. But anyone writing about another era has to grapple with that in all kinds of ways. You have to appreciate the whole gestalt.
Q: Summer is Gay Pride season — and we recently had ours in Seattle. Over the past few years, there’s been criticism of Pride for becoming more corporate, with sponsorship and more liquor advertising and so on.
A: I have lost some of my mojo for Pride over the years. Ten or 15 years ago, people started having “Gay Shame” festivals — I can get down for that. There’s a lot of “pinkwashing” going on. This year, Pittsburgh Pride changed its name to the “EQT Equality March,” named after a fracking company trying to rehabilitate its reputation.
When I first went to Pride in the early 1980s, it wasn’t a parade. It was a march! It was like a national holiday, the only place where you could feel at ease. That was a different time and place — you can’t recreate that moment. Nor would you want to.
Q: So, the “Bechdel test” …
A: I always feel sheepish because people always expect me to be more adamant about it than I am — films aren’t really my thing. When I do talk about it, I try to distance myself from the name because it came from a friend of mine, but feminist film students started calling it “the Bechdel test.”
Q: You’ve said before that “the test” was inspired by a combination of an idea your friend had and a passage by Virginia Woolf about novels in “A Room of One’s Own.” How did you get into Virginia Woolf?
A: I read a lot of Virginia Woolf just after I got out of college. I hated my English classes — I don’t know why. After my first college English course, I felt so daunted I gave up.
Q: What were you assigned in those classes?
A: A lot of it shows up in “Fun Home”: Hemingway, James Joyce. I felt frustrated that we couldn’t just read those books, and we had to ascribe all these strange psychological meanings to them. I loved the books but didn’t quite understand them. It wasn’t until I reread (Virginia Woolf’s) “To the Lighthouse” that I started to get it.
Q: You’ve had a lot of professional rejection in your life — especially from art school, which is kind of hilarious in hindsight. What advice do you have for young artists facing rejection these days?
A: Oh, I’m never good at giving advice. But that rejection was fortunate. I would’ve tried to be a dutiful art-school graduate student and wound up in graphic design or advertising or something awful like that. I never would’ve learned to make cartoons.
Q: “Fun Home” is, in part, about growing up in a funeral home. We’ve got an “alt-death” movement out here on the West Coast, including the Urban Death Project, which has serious plans to make a composting facility for human remains.
A: Wow. That’s great. My girlfriend is a big composter. She’s told me that when she dies, I should just put her facedown in a swamp.
Q: A swamp?
A: Yes, a swamp! Growing up with the traditional funeral ritual just seemed so wrong — embalming, putting them on display. My father would even joke about it. It seems simplistic, like a child’s version of what should happen when they die. It was just so sterile. The main joke in our family was our family reference to the funeral home as “the fun home.”